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Duluth's AICHO recognized as 'regional cultural treasure' with $500,000 grant

AICHO's arts program was one of 10 arts organizations in Minnesota to be designated a Regional Cultural Treasure and receive an unrestricted grant of at least $500,000.

A mural of a Native American woman on the side of the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center at the American Indian Community Housing Organization dominates the streetscape on West Second Street in Duluth on Friday evening. The mural was created by artists Votan Ik and Derek Brown. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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The American Indian Community Housing Organization has been working with local Indigenous artists for nine years to transform its headquarters at the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin into center for culture and arts.

Now AICHO has received recognition from the McKnight Foundation as one of 10 designated Regional Cultural Treasures in the state of Minnesota. With the designation comes an unrestricted grant of at least $500,000 to be distributed over the next five years.

"We use the term ‘Cultural Treasures’ with intention, to honor the diversity of expression and artistic excellence that these organizations contribute to the cultural vitality of our state, despite having historically experienced under-investment,” said Tonya Allen, president of the McKnight Foundation. “As our arts institutions prepare to safely re-open after the pandemic, we’re thrilled to shine a spotlight on these remarkable organizations.”

The cultural treasures designation is part of a larger $12.6 million initiative to recognize and invest in organizations which foster Black, Indigenous, Latino and Asian American art with imagination, persistence and creativity.

"As a community member and someone who worked for AICHO, I’m excited and impressed," said LeAnn Littlewolf, a former development director for AICHO. "AICHO does so much to foster Indigenous art and culture in the whole community. I can't wait to see what they do next."


According to native artist Moira Villiard , the organization started investing in artwork to fill the empty wall space at the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin building when it opened in 2012. The organization started hosting Indigenous artists and hosting exhibits on a monthly basis.


"In those early days, there were a lot of Native artists, myself included, living in the community who really didn't have an outlet for our artwork or experience in participating in shows," Villiard said. "I got to be part of the boom as an artist who benefited from AICHO's generosity in framing my first body of artwork and hiring me to curate my first ever art show as a teenager."
Villiard later worked as an arts and cultural program coordinator at AICHO, though has since moved on.

"Though I don't work for AICHO full-time anymore, my relationship with that place will never end," Villiard said. "That's the same for a lot of the artists who have benefited from their programming."

In 2017, AICHO commissioned a large-scale Water Protector mural to be painted by Indigenous artists on the side of its headquarters.

"That mural had a ripple effect on public art in our city," Villiard said. "I personally feel it revealed what was missing ⁠— authentic representation."

Littlewolf also cited the mural as an important contribution by the organization.

"It was the the first of its kind in this community. It provides visibility for our people in the community in a way that we haven't seen before," Littlewolf said.


Littlewolf also cited AICHO's involvement in the Duluth Superior Film Festival's Indigenous Film Series, and the opening of the Indigenous First gift shop.

As for plans for the future, Littlewolf said the organization has several projects in the works including the creation of a production studio at 2301 Superior St. and the development of an Indigenous market in the Hillside.

"Whatever they do with the funds, I know it'll be exciting," Littlewolf said.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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